The Neurobiology Behind Breakups
Why we often obsess, stress, and crave our ex
Posted August 19, 2016
I have always been fascinated by the brain's process of starting and detaching from romantic relationships . It's an amazing, well-orchestrated interplay of neurochemistry, hormones , and brain system activation and deactivation.
The intense emotions that follow both new love and breakups have an extraordinary impact on our thoughts, mood, and behavior.
There's much truth to the saying, 'love will make you do crazy things!'
The Brain and Breakups
About five years ago I was asked to give a talk regarding neuroscience and breakups to therapists. I love this topic, so I eagerly jumped at the opportunity.
In order to share the material in a way that was easily digestible for the audience, I decided to discuss breakups through the framework of brain systems .
Brain systems reflect pathways and brain chemistry that respond in a specific manner under certain conditions. We have numerous systems, and the same brain areas can be a part of many different systems.
Video Summary of the Neuroscience Behind Breakups
(Start at 1:20 if you want to skip the introduction/ background.)
Neuroscience Research & Clinical Observations
Based on clinical work with my patients, as well as years of journal reviews it was apparent that there were several systems that are impacted by a breakup.
We know that the brain has an intense reaction to the loss of a romantic relationship or social rejection . Researchers who study neuroscience and romantic love (e.g., Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong, and Mashek, 2010 ) have identified common ways the brain reacts when we lose a special relationship.
I too have observed these ' symptoms ' in patients and added to what we know regarding the neurobiology of breakups, by highlighting a couple of additional brain systems.
Six brain systems can be impacted following a breakup.
The six brain systems I suspect are strongly impacted by breakups are:
- The Bonding System
- Reward System
- Pain Systems
- Stress Systems,
- Emotion-Regulation System
- Cognitive Networks
Let's Get Into What They Do...
1. Bonding System – The bonding system is all about connection and is primarily run by oxytocin and vasopressin. Immediately following a breakup, this system can go into overdrive to push us back toward our former mate; even if that person was not a kind or loving partner.
We might feel alone and like a part of us is missing due to the chemistry of this system.
Consider : Connect with a warm support system of friends and family. The discussion does not have to focus on the relationship, but rather simply spend time together. Hugs, comfort, kind words, and reassurance can be very helpful.
2. Reward System – The reward system is associated with motivation toward (wanting) someone or something we value and like. Dopamine and endogenous opioids are the primary neurochemical drivers of this system and reflect its involvement in pleasure and pain.
Serotonin can also impact how a person feels. For example, this neurotransmitter is associated with a person experiencing obsessive thoughts, negativity, and impulsivity .
Consider : It might become necessary to ignore some of the suggestions that this system conjures up. It's seeking ' a fix ' (the ex-partner). Some have reported they have felt obsessed and then proceeded to act impulsively and out of character by engaging in repeated calls/texts, stalking, spying, or retaliation against the ex-mate.
If someone wants this system to cool down quicker, they must be careful not to give it what it desires (the ex). Just as one would never find it reasonable to do a little cocaine a few times a week when trying to get sober. The same applies to exes.
3. Pain System – The pain system is associated with the sensation of a broken heart and feelings of sadness, grief , and despair. Upon separation endogenous opioid levels tend to drop, which contributes to feelings of distress and pain . This adds another component of motivation toward reconnecting with the relationship.
Consider : Listening to music that expresses feelings, especially types that empower, uplift or relax. (Avoiding themes of despair & loss.) We use music in many therapeutic approaches in neurology and psychology because it can impact different regions of the brain. For example, music can affect the deep subcortical areas (emotion).
Exercise and eat balanced meals to give the brain what it needs to regenerate. Counseling may be necessary.
4. Stress Systems – The primary neurochemistry of these systems are corticotropin releasing hormone and norepinephrine. Two stress systems tend to reactive immediately following a breakup, leading an individual to feel hyper-aroused (i.e., alert, awake, ramped up). Some individuals might experience anxiety, heart palpitations, changes in appetite , and difficulty sleeping .
Consider : C onnecting with nature , exercise/ movement (e.g., a walking), and relaxation strategies like guided imagery can be soothing. Research has found that each can be helpful, p articularly concerning the neurotransmitter serotonin . Serotonin has an inhibitory effect on portions of the stress system (calms it/ can turn it off).
Get to your senses! Engage the senses of smell and hearing. Take advantage of the brain's responsiveness to the environment! Scents and sounds can change our mood and reduce feelings of stress .
5. Emotion-Regulation System - We know that when the brain is in a highly stressed state, such as immediately following a breakup , areas of the prefrontal cortex are less active . We all require the prefrontal cortex on board and working properly to regulate emotions. This is the way emotions can be managed, and impulses can be controlled.
But often after a breakup, with this system less engaged, it can be difficult to talk ourselves out of a tough spot or feel balanced.
6. Cognitive Networks - During periods of stress , the brain shifts away from the cognitive (thinking) and regulating system and puts its resources toward the emotional systems. The bottom line is that for many, there will be problems with concentration , organization , and memory .
Through this neurobiological model of breakups, one can see how a person might feel in a decompensated state when a relationship ends. There’s a storm of activity going on in there!
Immediately after the separation it is normal for the brain to give a strong reaction to the lost relationship. It might initially attempt to retrieve the ex-partner, but then with time (and efforts toward disengagement) the neurochemistry settles down, and the uncomfortable symptoms fade.
If anyone is experiencing a difficult time coping with the intensity of emotions that follow a breakup, consultation with a mental health profession may be necessary.
For individuals who were in relationships that were traumatizing (e.g., exposure to abuse, a partner with psychopathy or narcissistic personality disorder), the aftermath period is not the same as with a non-abusive partner. Specialized treatment may be required for this (abuse) population.
© 2016 Rhonda Freeman, PhD | All Rights Reserved
Given that people are not all the same and relationship dynamics are different, not everyone will have these reactions. Also, this is a general overview and not reflective of all of the neurochemistry, hormones or brain regions involved.
Freeman, R. (2016). Going Through a Breakup? Get to Know the Neuroscience Behind it. Huffington Post. Contributor.
• Rhonda Freeman, PhD - Neuropsychologist. Exploring the neuroscience of healthy and abusive love relationships.
• This content is informational. It is not intended to serve as any psychological service/advice and is not a substitute for a consultation with your health care provider.
Arnsten, A., Raskindb, M., Taylor, F., Connor, D. (2015). The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurobiology of Stress, Volume 1, Pages 89–99
Eysenck M. W., Derakshan N., Santos R., Calvo M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion 7, 336
Raio, C.M., Orederu, T., Palazzolo, L., Shurick, A., and Phelps, E.A. (2013) Cognitive emotion regulation fails the stress test. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(37), 15139-15144.
Raio, C.M. & Phelps, E.A. (2015) The influence of stress on the regulation of conditioned fear. Neurobiology of Stress, 1, 134-46.
Koob GF. (1999) Corticotropin-releasing factor, norepinephrine, and stress. Biological Psychiatry. Nov 1;46(9):1167-80.
Kosten, T., George, T, and Kleber, H. (2011) The neurobiology of substance dependence. In R. Frances, S. Miller, & A. Mack (Eds) Clinical textbook of addictive disorders (pp 3 – 15). New York, NY: Guilford
Young, K. A., Gobrogge, K. L., Liu, Y., & Wang, Z. (2011). The Neurobiology of pain bonding: Insights from a socially monogamous rodent. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 32(1), 53–69.
Young, L & Wang, Z. (2004). The neurobiology of pair bonding. Nature Neuroscience 7, 1048 - 1054